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Freshwater seals of Lake Iliamna enlisted in Pebble Mine clash

Alex DeMarban
Alaska's largest deepwater lake ripples with mystery -- underwater caves, a mythical monster, and a unique community of freshwater seals, unlike any others in America. Federal scientists will soon be studying those seals to determine whether or not they should join polar bears and other animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. Dave Withrow / NOAA

Alaska's largest deepwater lake ripples with mystery, including one that federal regulators hope to unravel in a newly announced review that some hope will stop the giant Pebble Mine prospect. 

The Fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Thursday they'll seek to determine whether the unusual freshwater harbor seals in Iliamna Lake in Southwest Alaska are a distinct population, and whether they should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a California-based group that has fought in court to protect polar bears and other Alaska species, requested the six-month review and asked that the seals be protected in areas designated as critical habitat.

The Pebble Mine project, plus climate change and ocean acidification, are threats that could make the 250 to 350 adult harbor seals in Iliamna Lake eligible for a listing, the group believes. The little-studied critters are the only freshwater seals in the country, and are one of only five freshwater seal populations in the Northern Hemisphere, according to the Center.

The massive lake, which some think houses a sea monster as well as underwater caves where the harbor seals can find privacy, is located 17 miles south and downstream of the proposed project, one of the world's largest copper discoveries. Critics fear the massive open-pit process needed to extract the minerals will pollute waterbodies and destroy fisheries in the region, including the world's largest and most lucrative wild salmon fishery, in Bristol Bay some 100 miles to the south.

The Center for Biological Diversity said in a written statement that the mine will threaten the seals during critical pupping and molting phases, and put salmon-spawning grounds at risk. Officials with Pebble Partnership, formed by mining giants Northern Dynasty and Anglo American, have said the mine will have minimal impact on the environment.

The public opinion battle over the project has been fierce and in the last year has involved the Environmental Protection Agency, which was petitioned by local stakeholders to study potential ecological threats the hypothetical mine would pose.

The EPA said the project would fill in nearly 100 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands and devastate salmon habitat, according to the release from the Center for Biological Diversity.

John Shively, chief executive of the Pebble Partnership, said the mine development consortium believes the seals are not currently threatened or endangered, and that their numbers have been stable.

Shively said he could not see how activities from the proposed mine would harm the seals. The lake is too far distant, and Iliamna is one of the largest lakes in the nation. In the off-chance that any pollutant reached the lake, "it would basically dilute," he said.

"We're dealing with ore that's less than 1 percent mineralized," he said. "Most of what we're producing is just dirt." 

If the seals are listed, the decision will impact local people more than it will the mine, Shively said. "I really don't see how (a listing) impacts the mine at all at this point."

That's because the Pebble Partnership proposes to move material along an 85-mile road or railway between the proposed mine and Cook Inlet, Shively said. "It goes near Iliamna Lake, but not through it."

Locals hunt the seals, and people boat and fish on the lake. Residents barge materials across the lake, and driftnet salmon fishermen sometimes use it to ferry boats between Southcentral Alaska and Bristol Bay. A listing could pose obstacles for those efforts, Shively said. 

The Center said a listing would not affect subsistence harvests by Alaska Natives, because they are exempted from the law’s prohibitions.

NOAA's review could be an important step toward protecting the seals, the Center said. “This is great news for Iliamna Lake seals,” said Kiersten Lippmann, an Alaska-based biologist for the Center. “If these animals are going to survive, we need to protect the only lake they live in — not turn it into a massive industrial zone.”

The Center's petition contains enough "scientific or commercial information" to possibly warrant a listing, NOAA Fisheries said. The status review should be completed by November 2013.

The agency will review available information and take public comment for a 60-day period ending July 17. Online comments can be submitted through the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

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